Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, and commander, Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, meets sailors aboard the guided-missile cruiser Port Royal during a tour of the ship in 2012. (MCSN Diana Quinlan/Navy)
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The surface Navy’s top boss has spent the last year grappling, often publicly, with many of the fleet’s most pressing problems — the lack of sleep, the effects of heavy budget cuts on top of chronic undermanning, and the threat of a brain drain that could deplete the service of capable sailors.
Known for speaking frankly, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman has been no stranger to controversy. The commander of Naval Surface Forces recommended re-evaluating the Navy’s plan to buy littoral combat ships in a classified memo that made headlines when it became public earlier this year. In a speech, he said he was concerned that massive budget cuts — billions of which have since taken effect for this fiscal year — would dishearten sailors already facing extended deployments and difficulties getting parts, saying “people will start walking.”
Copeman, in an exclusive interview with Navy Times in late June, said he has not seen a drastic fall-off in retention, but continues to monitor it closely. He is focused on plugging as many as 4,200 open shipboard jobs with the right people, improving training and curtailing the different systems installed aboard ships in the same class, which makes it difficult to adequately educate technical personnel. He also aims to roll out new training tactics for junior officers, starting with specialized courses on anti-submarine warfare and missile defense — part of a vision to build better war fighters.
Copeman, who joined the Navy 31 years ago via Officer Candidate School, discussed these initiatives and many of the fleet’s hot-button issues, from new inspections to the drive to cut down on paperwork, as he entered his second year as surface fleet boss. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. The deployment pace has been high for strike groups, amphibious ready groups and even independent deployers. The destroyer Paul Hamilton, for instance, recently returned from a nine-month independent cruise. Will deployments continue to stretch this long?
A. Certainly eight-, nine- and 10-month deployments require [chief of naval operations] waivers because those extend beyond what his guidelines are. And to meet the combatant commander requirements, we’ve certainly exceeded them quite a bit, particularly the ballistic-missile defense independent deployers. Almost every one of those are on some sort of an op tempo, home tempo or length-of-deployment sort of waiver. Amphibious force: not quite as high, but pretty high percentage of it. So we’re very mindful of it, and we voice our concerns of how long we think this can go. I don’t know what the limit is, but I think there’s a limit to it. I’m confident that the CNO and the fleet commanders are very sensitive to it, and we’re trying to get back down into the norms that we were used to.
Q. The Navy has had to contend with a $4 billion shortfall of operations funds through September, and more “sequestration” cuts may be in store unless lawmakers stop them. What are these cuts and uncertainties doing to your readiness?
A. The million-dollar question for ’14, like ’13, is does sequestration come in or not? And nobody in the Department of Defense can answer that question, but I will tell you that there’s all sorts of planning going on to meet that possibility. And it will affect all of the PESTO [personnel, equipment, supply, training and ordnance] pillars. With sequestration, people will still be fenced, such as [in] their pay and allowances. So the cuts will go into the equipment and supply, training and ordnance. Obviously, that’s going to have some sort of an impact.
Q. Should those sequestration cuts happen again, will the cost-cutting measures likely look the same as they did this year, when many exercises and deployments were canceled?
A. It’s hard to speculate. But I would anticipate that the prioritization would be a lot like it was this year for forward-deployed forces in support of the combatant commanders. I think some of the CONUS-based stuff will be cut back. But it’d be pure speculation.
Q. In a speech earlier this year, you said you were concerned that these massive cuts may demoralize crew members and convince some to leave. Has this happened?
A. No. Retention is pretty leveled off. It’s just a tick lower in the pack in ’13 than it was in ’12 for a couple of the zones. I think it’s within the norms that we would expect to see. So no, I’m not concerned about it right now.
Q. Insufficient fleet manpower is an issue you’ve been contending with. What’s the current level of Navy enlisted classification
code “fit,” [i.e. billets filled with the right NECs] and the size of manpower gaps? And what are you doing to address them?
A. Right now, our fit is about 80 percent and our fill [i.e., at-sea manning in general] is about 91 percent in the surface force, [Atlantic and Pacific fleets] combined. So we’re missing about 4,200 paid-for billets at sea out of about 49,000. There are [billets authorized] for it. There’s a billet on the ship and there’s not a person filling it.
Q. Is that a norm, or is that something you’re trying to correct?
A. The numbers are a little lower than they were, but that’s because over the last two fiscal years, we’ve been buying billets back on ships to reverse some of the optimum manning. You don’t have an E-6 immediately. It takes years to build one. That’s been a contributor to why the numbers have slipped a little bit, because the [billets authorized] has gone up and the distributable inventory has not caught up yet. But we anticipate that it will in a couple of years.
Q. Any particular rates or paygrades most needed?
A. There’s no particular rating that stands out. We do a pretty good job of managing it. There’s really no particular rating that I’m going, “Oh my God.” I don’t like being at 85 percent fit and fill. I prefer to be much higher than that. And we’re working hard to get there.
Q. The CNO recently said there’s too much paperwork. What are you doing to lighten the load on your crews?
A. We’ve got about 200 suggestions from the fleet, and they vary from the management of ordnance to gun quals to how we do [preventative maintenance]. We’ve got a lot of good stuff on how to make better use of technology to reduce workload, and some of it’s using tablets out there and getting databases to talk to each other, so when your personnel file is updated and it fills out the right block on your evals, you don’t have to go back and do that again. Those are the sorts of things that we’re focused in on. What’s different about this time around is the four-star fleet commanders and the CNO are really focused in on it.
Q. The fleet has seen a number of ship-handling incidents in the past year. In the incidents involving the amphibious assault ship Essex, destroyer Porter and minesweeper Guardian, Navy investigators concluded that the commanding officer failed, watchstanders didn’t step in and protocols were ignored. What are you doing to address these issues?
A. [The Guardian grounding] was a wholly avoidable incident if established processes and procedures were followed by any number of people. We hold our commanding officers ultimately responsible and accountable for the conduct of their crews. The Porter: that was a CO that had a judgment error, which as it turns out had severe consequences.
Q. But it seems like in the Essex or Porter collisions last year, the CO made an error and no one stepped up to correct it. Does that concern you?
A. In the case of the Porter, I’ve heard the same tapes you heard, and I think you hear the [officer of the deck] fairly forcefully urging him to not do what he ended up doing. But I think the culture in the Navy and in the military, there’s a tendency to think that the commanding officer has a better handle on the situation than they do. I talk to all of the COs as they come through on their way to their ships, and I tell them they must be very open and responsive to the fact that there’s going to be other officers and enlisted people on their ships that have information that they’re not privy to that’s very important. They’ve got to breed a culture of inclusion on the ship. They can’t act like they’re the only one who’s the expert ship-driver, the expert war fighter. It’s a team sport out there.
Q. Is your goal for the war-fighting courses to baseline junior officers in tactics?
A. It’s not going to be all of them. We’re starting off with [anti-submarine warfare] and missile defense, and we’ll branch out to expeditionary warfare and surface warfare. But I think we can raise the level of knowledge in the fleet. And the notion is that you teach a certain core of officers to be very proficient in tactics in these warfare areas, and then they go to their ships and their staffs and they’re able to propagate their knowledge and start raising the individual levels of the officers on the ships, which raises the unit levels.
Q. Ship inspections have changed significantly. Board of inspection and survey visits are now intended to be a truer picture of the ship’s conditions, and there are material condition inspections every deployment cycle. How is the effort going?
A. The surface force readiness manual has been in run for nearly a year. We’re getting some pretty good feedback as we’re getting some ships that have gone through INSURV and now they’re going through the MCI, because you’re getting one or the other every cycle. We are starting to raise the level of readiness up and the level of knowledge of the crews out there.
Q. The INSURV president has said that he expects the new inspections will show a slip in ships’ conditions, due in part to less outside help beforehand. Have you seen this drop?
A. The MCIs that we’ve seen on the West Coast: some have been very, very good. But a couple have been shaky in the execution of the inspection. Because it’s tough. You’re doing a lot of stuff in a 24-hour period and if you don’t practice it, it’s difficult. But I don’t want ships to stop for three months to practice for a one-week thing. I want it to become a day in the life of a ship. It’s going to take three or four cycles. You can’t snap your fingers and change this stuff overnight.
Q. The new INSURV lacks a pass-fail grade. In cases where ships have real problems, aren’t you concerned that the new INSURV isn’t calling a spade a spade?
A. I’m not exactly sure of the exact origin of the pass-fail. INSURV’s function is to determine whether ships are fit for further service or not. We do keep metrics, we do compare ships. We tell them how they do against the class, and they understand how they do against other ships of their class in each of the mission areas. So we’re not hiding anything.